Memoir may be my favorite genre because it brings such depth and nuance to our limited human experience. I believe in a world as complicated and divided as ours, we need the empathy that can be built by finding common ground; by seeing ourselves in the stories of others. I hope these memoirs help you feel a little more connected and a little more understood yourself.
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My Memoir Shortlist
By Tara Westover. Vogue referred to this one as sui generis which I thought was just so Vogue. And Educated truly is in a class of its own. I’s engrossing, inspiring, and somehow feels universal despite being about a woman born to survivalist parents, and who didn’t step foot in a classroom until she was seventeen.
Westover and her family are so isolated from the rest of society, and so staunch in their beliefs, that they don’t engage with institutions like schools or modern medicine. She is treated with tinctures when sick or hurt, and put to work preparing for the end of days. When she finally does learn of the outside world, she begins teaching herself, and is accepted to Brigham Young University. Her formal education takes her all over the world, and forces her to ask herself questions about the ties that bind family.
By Susanna Keysen. When Susanna was eighteen, she was taken to a psychiatrist and diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder after overdosing on pills. Though she denied it was a suicide attempt, she was sent to McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, where she ends up spending 18 months. Girl, Interrupted is the story of her time there.
This memoir doesn’t have much in the way of a linear plot. It’s more like a collection of poetic (sometimes highly visceral) and narrative observations. That spoke to me because it felt like it was written the way her brain was working. I felt deeply connected to Susanna because I felt like I could see what she was seeing, and that I was making sense of it all as I went along, just like her.
By Victor Frankl. No list of books on the human condition would be complete without this one. It was actually named one of the most influential books in America. Dr. Frankl was a Jewish man sent to several concentration camps during World War II. Since he was highly educated, the Nazis found him useful and he was kept alive to work. However, he lost everyone he loved, including his pregnant wife.
Despite the unthinkable tragedy of this, he doesn’t wallow. He uses his suffering as an example of his therapeutic approach known as logotherapy. It states that the point of life is not to avoid suffering, but to find meaning in it.
By Lucy Grealy. Grealy had Ewing Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that gave her a 5% chance of survival. Even more shocking, she fought and beat it as a young child.
While there are some scenes featuring Lucy in the hospital and navigating the cancer, she is clear that is not the purpose of this book. It’s about how, to remove the cancer, doctors had to remove a third of her jaw. Though the cancer was gone, her face was permanently deformed, and her self-esteem issues would linger for many years.
The most poignant part of this story for me is precisely what many readers hate about it. Though the book makes an attempt at a clean ending, Grealy never fully accepted her face, and in 2002, she died of a drug overdose. While some readers hope for a story of survival, strength, and acceptance, they get one that punches them in the gut with this hard truth about humanity. We are flawed. We get it wrong. Sometimes we don’t win the battle against our demons. It is devastating, but it is true.
By Lily Bailey. Every once in a while, most people have a scary intrusive thought like, “what if I just punched this guy in the face right now?” And most of us are able to dismiss them quickly and resume daily life. But that’s not the case for everyone.
Lily Bailey suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She has thoughts that she really struggles to quiet unless she acts on them. If she had a harmless intrusive thought like the one above, she would spend hours secretly engaging in routines that she believed would earn her penance. A particularly strong example from the book is when, as a child, she learns of pedophilia and believes that she is a pedophile because she has seen the naked body of her little sister, with whom she shares a bedroom.
I love the intimacy this memoir offers- even without having OCD, one can still feel connected to this author. It goes to show how a person is more than what they suffer from.
By Kay Redfield Jamison. She is a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, and has centered her academic career around the understanding and treatment of Bipolar Disorder. In a deeply ironic, cruel bit of fate, she succumbs to the disorder herself. The book unfolds her experience as someone suffering from the affliction as well as trying her best to treat it in others. As a mental health professional, it felt deeply humanizing to read. As a person who has loved and been hurt by people with Bipolar Disorder, it pried my heart open and allowed forgiveness to seep in.